When I found myself a member of a body that had become a corpse, when I found that my long love’s coldblooded attitude was to dismantle that corpse systematically and in the name of something he was calling “boundaries” and “moving on” and “what’s healthy for both of us,” when I saw that there was a panic-inducing shutting down of all the good things in my life the way a series of doors snaps shut in a horror film, when I found out that he’d already hired a lawyer with money he borrowed from his mother to “protect himself,” when he closed our bank account without warning me, when he refused couples’ therapy or mediation, and when I learned that pleading for mercy would not earn me any, I paid a lawyer $50 for a consultation.
“I’ve accepted a job that will take me to Canada, and I want to know if that’s a bad idea,” I said, when she asked what my main concerns were.
“Oh, you absolutely cannot go to Canada,” she said. “Plus it’s not good for your babies. No. No. Here’s the deal, he owes you child support, spousal support, he has to pay for your lawyer, how much money does he make. It says here ___. Is that gross?”
“What’s the gross?”
“I don’t know. I don’t see his paystubs, just the amount that comes in.”
“You don’t know? Six times out of ten,” she told me, “A man has some money hiding somewhere. I find money.”
“Oh, well, I don’t think that will be an issue here.”
“I’m looking up his income online,” she said. A is a professor at a public university and apparently all the money was there to see. She proceeded to tell me what I’d be entitled to, how I would likely be the one taking full custody, and that I should start putting my valuables in storage right now if I wanted them after the divorce proceedings start. Mentally, I took a scan of my belongings, none of which had any value: sagging couch, forty-year-old table, twenty-year-old set of knives. I really liked my cheese slicer, child of a Dutch immigrant that I am. Other than that all I really owned was a desk (Ikea), a thousand books, a suitcase’s worth of serums, eyeliners, shampoos, and creams, and a closet full of mostly worn-down clothes. What was the most valuable thing? I owned a pair of Fluevog shoes I’d bought ten years ago and barely worn. I might be able to get $50 for those?
When I told her what had happened between us, she said, “Why aren’t you angry with him? Why aren’t you trying to take him for every penny he’s worth?”
I thought about our life, infected, as it would be by this attitude of litigation. “I am angry. But I’m trying to behave morally. I want him to be okay. He’s still the father of my children.”
“Look,” she said. “If I put a million dollars down on the table in front of you right now, do you take the million or do you leave twenty thousand on the table?”
“Uh,” I said. “I don’t understand. Do I have a good reason for leaving the twenty thousand?”
She sighed. “Do you take the million or do you leave twenty grand on the table?”
“Does the twenty grand belong to someone? Does someone need it?”
She sighed again, more sharply. “Okay, here. I don’t know how much you make per hour but if your boss offers you $10 an hour do you say, ah, no thanks, I’ll take $5.”
“Oh!” I was delighted that I’d have an answer that was easy to give. “Definitely you take the $10 an hour.”
The idea that there might be something virtuous in avoiding making (or taking) money is an inheritance from my father’s side. Around Christmas, we couldn’t buy presents for my dad, whose birthday was Christmas Eve, because he didn’t want them. If he could play chess, read books, and have a philosophical discussion, he was happy. My Oma and Opa—his parents—had been farmhands living on someone else’s farm, immigrants from the Netherlands and unable to turn their privilege into wealth due, I was told, to my Opa’s lack of ambition. He didn’t want to start his own greenhouse or own his own property, to amass wealth, the way every other Dutchman did. He just wanted some time to rest. When I was a child, the most powerful fairy tales about money included one from the Andersen canon in which a boy gets by on his wits and morals and sleeps in a pile of dirt, a story from Ancient Greek philosophy about the power of not wanting anything (the king comes to offer the philosopher anything he can dream of and the philosopher says “you’re standing in the way of the sun,”) and the story of the prophet Elijah, exiled and fed by bread and meat the Lord provides by sending ravens to deliver them to him.
During our engagement—when A and I were both just 21—everyone we knew said we were too young to get married. That it wasn’t wise. There were things you needed to do before you wed. What were those things? Oh, finish school, get a job, save for a home, buy a home, then get married, then have kids. That marriage was a transaction with economic underpinnings is something everyone else seemed to know. That maybe I shouldn’t in a fit of whimsy take his name. And that I was a woman in this arrangement, giving something up to get something else. Everyone else seemed to know that marriage was just one of the steps one takes in the passage from middle class childhood to middle class adulthood. But I had never liked the rituals and institutions everyone else was so fond of, and I had not been raised with middle-class values. I had been raised in a subculture with an entirely different set, devout Christians belonging to a micro-class of what I later called “shabby intellectuals.”
And I was a romantic. Wasn’t it so unconventional of us to get married, like dummies, at the first sign of true love? Another thing my father bequeathed to me is a love of Jane Austen. An Austen heroine will not sell her life off for the best economic arrangement— she chooses to remain true to her values and her sense of herself—and she finds herself in the best economic arrangement anyway.
So, there we were, two undergrads with few prospects—strong students in English and Philosophy —suddenly landed in the bizarre land of the engaged. We went to Sears and tried to figure out what stuff we might need or like on a wedding registry. “Seems like a lot to ask people to give us,” I said, over and over. Instead of scanning the thing I wanted, I scanned a more modest version. I had no feelings about any of the things we chose, except a set of plates that one by one were smashed and ruined over the following decades until none remained.
We learned what marriage was by marrying. In the same way, we would learn what having children was by having them. I used to think that there must be things other people knew that I didn’t, and that I jumped first, but now I believe we all jump first, that it’s not possible to have enough information ahead of time. I didn’t care about a beautiful dress or a sumptuous feast—I wanted to get married by inviting friends to a potluck—but when our parents got involved plans swelled and were no longer mine.
Only at the wedding did I realize that there was something in this that had to do with a public commitment everyone was making to your bond. That was what all the gifts were about, too, the community of all the people you know investing in your union by helping you set up a life. Opening card after card full crammed with $50 bills from his Italian relatives, I sat on the floor of our new apartment dazzled and shocked.
A was less afraid to spend money than I was. I had been charmed by a number of markers of what I believed were wealth when we were dating. His dad’s car had heated seats. His family would go out for dinner at a steakhouse and spend over a hundred dollars! When A went to the movies he didn’t sneak bags of penny candies in, he paid full price for popcorn. When we were apartment hunting we found a dark attic room for $400 a month in a manor-like building that was once called “Home for the Friendless.” But there was a huge two-bedroom apartment with 12-foot ceilings and elaborate windows in the same building, and A persuaded me that it was worth it to spend $750 on this. I wandered around the place, giddily taking in its well-lit, breezy charm. I was basically Lizzie Bennet now. I was basically Cinderella.
I had been a young woman who worked six part-time jobs during her third year of university in order not to go into debt, a young woman who once sat in the bougie neighborhood near that university in desperation looking at all the houses and lives that she’d never have access to. It was 2003. I had been sliding into poverty for years—I would buy cigarettes instead of food, depend on boyfriends to feed me. In 2002 the bank accidentally cancelled a set of my cheques, and so every cheque I wrote came with a surcharge I could not afford. I lived on tomato sandwiches, rarely ate out or drank, never bought clothes or CDs, rode my bike or walked everywhere, and simmered with frustration. So what if a man could come along? And what if he was my intellectual match, and handsome and aloof and talented in philosophy, and kind, as though someone had baked him in a kitchen just for me. What if I was in love with him and plus he came from the middle classes proper? He wasn’t scandalized by spending more than he ought to on anything. He wasn’t afraid of buying popcorn, having a warm ass, and being in debt. So A saved me. But I was no longer free.
It was an innocence I had of a kind. I was malformed because of my recent psychological breakdown, my mind and its lack of “feminine grace”, my religious devotion, my fearlessness. I really could not live in this world. I was so young—or, I told myself, I was a shrew mid-taming. A wedding was a performance, and I was in its most ill-fitting costume. Though I had asked our pastor to eliminate the line from our vows that referred to Ephesians 5 (Women, submit to your husbands), I discovered the pastor had snuck it in anyway, and had me repeat it, at my own wedding, in front of everyone, “I will submit to you as the church submits itself to Jesus.”
Some part of me found it a little kinky to play house, to take his name, to be tamed in these ways. Finally a man strong enough to handle me! Every last bit of it was play, performance, costume, and I thought that meant it had no consequences.
There are too many years to get through to find ourselves at the end. Too many choices—children! Moving to America! getting stuck in America!—and was I always to be the speaker of that song surprised about his beautiful house and his beautiful wife? The costume that marriage most offered me was the cloak of normalcy and acceptability. People treated me much better than they had.
Left to my own devices, I believed, I would never go into debt and also never make a savvy financial decision. A behaved the way his parents did: buy a house just on the outside edge of your budget and watch as your equity rises. When you have too much debt on one credit card, do a balance transfer. Remortgage the home to pay for the cars. As obligations piled up and money became more complicated, in many ways I remained that girl who sat outside in the bougie neighbourhoods wondering how anyone could live there. Even though I was now in the bougie neighbourhood. How did people afford homes, cars, vacations, lessons for their children? They weren’t trying to be writers. I did calculations over and over: I had a life that wasn’t the one I had chosen for myself— we were in California for A’s job, we had a house he had liked—but I had many wonderful things. I had married the love of my life. I loved my kids, I found time to write, I rubbed shoulders with people whose success in the arts or academia made me feel slightly unreal—but I longed for the freedom I had once had and perhaps every artist wishes for: a room somewhere with little need for upkeep, a bicycle to get around, a small grocery budget, free time.
Because this wasn’t the life I had chosen—I was a tagalong, a stowaway in someone else’s life—I let him make all these decisions and told myself I would learn to live with them instead of fighting and in this way I believed that I was like the fairy tale child living in dirt, I believed I was like that sun-loving philosopher, I believed that I was Elijah, fed by birds.
A kept telling me that one of his priorities was to figure out our finances so that I could quit working all my jobs and write. I still had so many jobs, was still, even with three children and an emergent writing career, working at, most of the time, at least two or three different gigs. Through the years I had at many times almost gotten a normal job, something full-time with benefits. I thought of applying for med school, library school, teacher’s college. I was offered full-time work at a boarding school, but I balked, afraid that, with the commute and the three kids and the full-time job I’d never find the time to write. It wasn’t that I didn’t value or want money, it’s that money was never more important than writing. Everyone everywhere always said to me, I don’t know how you do it. My answer was, you just do. But this was stubbornness, or it was stupid impracticality, and maybe I was a person who had wasted my life on romantic ideals.
My feeling like a stowaway in someone else’s life was one of the things that contributed to the demise of our marriage. At the end, A told me, these were your choices. And I didn’t want to admit that I had any responsibility for any of it. Hadn’t it all just happened to me?
A friend points out to me now that I was hardly indifferent to money, which was the original premise of this piece. I was, actually, hyper-aware of money and terrified of poverty, because my parents had had so little, because I’d had to put myself through school, and because I felt, at all times, on the brink of losing everything. Maybe I had let A make our financial choices because I didn’t know what else to do with this fear.
From 2008 until about 2010, I got caught up trying to be a stay-at-home mother. When I had my first two children, I was overly influenced by La Leche League, Mothering magazine, and then by a non-YouTube sort of radicalization via the regressive Baby Book of Dr. William Sears, which gave me to believe that happiness would be possible for me only if surrendered completely to a certain kind of “natural” mothering. It had its aesthetics (soft or wooden toys; hand-knit items made from hand-dyed wool), its own vocabulary (co-sleeping, on-demand feeding), its many anti-vaxxing devotees. I quit my job at the public library, and we moved to Toronto to a 600 square foot apartment in a student family highrise, where A would finish his PhD in Philosophy while I would, I guess, be a mother.
It suited neither of us. We could not afford to live the aesthetics of the natural, simple parenting—it turned out that this required an influx of cash, perhaps a blog with a large following and a great deal of advertiser content. Mothering magazine shuttered, but all the mothers I knew bought the expensive slings they’d once advertised anyway. There was a moment when someone was discussing the relative organic purity of certain fibers my baby would have to have right up close to their skin that I suddenly saw the absurdity of this: the air itself was so dirty that a film of grime was on the windows. We lived for a spell on $20,000 a year in one of the most expensive cities in the country, where we could barely afford a subway token and I seemed to be anemic. Our window looked out on an expensive shopping district, where the Holt Renfrew glassfront was always in view. I despised the people nearby I thought of as rich, the women in furs and swollen with injections, the men whose shoes required frequent shining. A priest from the Anglican church we attended came over to advise us. We were so miserable then. We said we had been trying to live “simply” and she said, “Oh, no one said the simple life was easy.” Like everything else, a simple life was only easy if you were rich. The philosopher didn’t have children. Elijah didn’t. I had romanticized again, and again become a victim of my own romanticizing.
When, instead of saving me, this kind of mothering broke me, I returned to feminist literature. I read a piece urging young mothers not to completely leave the workplace lest they get divorced one day and find that they have had nothing on their résumé for twenty years. Divorce was unimaginable—our love story was epic, full of mythologies—but I also knew that everyone said that about divorce after the fact.
It goes against my deepest values to endorse a capitalist form of feminism, the leaning-in, the girlbossing, the eighties-style pantsuit-with-shoulder-pads. That sort of feminism equates independence with financial independence. But it also offends those values to be like someone I knew who, after committing to the same sort of retrograde motherhood I later abandoned, but more religious than me, said she regretted getting a degree and that she’d be encouraging her daughters to skip university and find a man to support them. My own ten-year-old jokingly suggested, in her desire for more stuff, that it’s time for me to find someone rich who I can marry. What kind of woman might you be if what you wanted most was an unconventional life with many friends and books and time to write and a bicycle, if what you had was a collection of graduate degrees that could only get you low-waged or precarious (if prestigious) employment and if you were seen as “ambitious” and a “workaholic” for revolving your life and happiness around the need to write? And what if that sort of unconventional life seemed utterly financially out of reach anyway?
And why I need to find that time to write is because I can’t seem to adjust to the strangeness of living, the complexity of wandering around, a person packed with influences, who can’t tell if her deepest self wants love and commitment or if that deepest self wants independence, or whether there is any such thing as a deep self at all. Who has time to think when there is so much money you have to make just to keep yourself alive? No matter how much I assert to myself that I am suspicious of the idea of independence, it still feels bad to find that I am at this man’s mercy, it still feels awful not to afford health care because of that, and it still feels terrifying, in America, as a parent, not to be rich.